A factories inspector named Jean Gordon was quoted in a 1908 New Orleans newspaper in which she decried the “absolutely unblushing manner in which mothers declare their children of legal age argues poorly for their moral training.“ She added darkly, “Not for one moment do I wish this community to think I have been deceived by the statements of either parents or manufacturers.”

As quaint as this scolding sounds, Ms. Gordon had identified a real problem. Lewis Wickes Hine spent quite a bit of time talking to and photographing the messenger boys because he could also see these young boys were often put into roles by a struggling parent who needed the money to feed their household. Often this meant dropping out of school at a very early age.

Whether these mothers and fathers understood the situations in which their children would inevitably be exposed to is unknown.

These are a few stories about the messenger boys who were overwhelmed by–and eventually became part of–their seedy environment.

Durward Nickerson

 

Durward Nickerson, Western Union messenger #55. Birmingham, Alabama. September, 1914. “He took investigator through the old Red Light on Ave. A, pointed out the various resorts, told him about the inmates he has known there,” the notes read. “Only a half dozen of them were open now, and those very quietly. Durward has put in 2 years in the messenger work and shows the result of temptations open to him. He has recently returned from a hobo trip through 25 states. He was not inclined to tell much about the shady side of messenger work, but one could easily see that he has been through much that he might have avoided in a profitable kind of work. 18 years old.” Hine wryly labeled this photo: “One of the by-products of messenger work.”

Willie Cheatham

 

Willie Cheatham was Western Union messenger #1 in Montgomery, Alabama. 1914 October.

“Says he is 16 years now; been messenger for 6 years. Late Sunday night, October 4th, I talked with him, still on duty, until 10 P.M. ‘You bet I know every crooked house in town. Went to school with one of those girls when she was straight. Her mother died and she went bad. Some young girls were there too. I go out to Red Light some with messages and packages, and if I want to, I bust right in and sit down.'”

Hine added an afterthought, “Hard face.”

Eugene Dalton

 

Eugene Dalton, Fort Worth, Texas.. “For nine years, this 16-year-old boy has been newsboy and messenger for drug stores and telegraph companies,” Hine wrote in 1913. “He was recently brought before the Judge of the Juvenile Court for incorrigibility at home. Is now out on parole, and was working again for drug company when he got a job carrying grips in the Union Depot. He is on the job from 6 A.M. to 11 P.M. (17 hours a day) for seven days in the week. His mother and the Judge thinks he uses cocaine, and yet they let him put in these long hours every day. He told me, ‘There ain’t a house in the Acre, (Fort Worth’s Red Light district) that I ain’t been in. At the drug store, all my deliveries were down there.’ Dalton made $15-$18 a week.”

John Towers

 

Hine’s notes: “John Towers, 1910 May. Postal Telegraph Company, Messenger # 9. 15 years of age. In service 1 year. Visits houses of prostitution. Sometimes smokes. Wilmington, Delaware.”

Note: All photos courtesy of Library of Congress.

Occasionally, I find an old photograph of a messenger boy, and always pause to admire these cute little guys. Messenger boys are sort of a cousin profession to the iconic newspaper boy, These scrappy, uniformed little boys are a staple of Disney tales, Charles Dickens novels, and many movies made in the 1930s and 1940s.

It’s a profession that no longer exists, and was driven in large part by inventions such as the telegraph.

But today, I realized I bought a romanticized version of this profession. The scales fell from my eyes when I found these images captured by Lewis Wickes Hine, the prolific photographer. Hine’s works is credited with being a key factor in passing child labor laws in the early twentieth century.

The short bios that Hine included with many of his photographs that has made me see the messenger boy profession quite differently.

Preston DeCosta

 

Preston DeCosta, 15 years old, Messenger #3 for Bellevue Messenger Service in San Antonio, Texas in 1911. Hine encountered Preston carrying notes between a prostitute in jail and a pimp in the Red Light district. “He had read all the notes and knew all about the correspondence. He was a fine-grained adolescent boy. Has been delivering message and drugs in the Red Light for 6 months and knows the ropes thoroughly.”

“A lot of these girls are my regular customers,” Preston told Hine. “I carry ’em messages and get ’em drinks, drugs, etc. Also go to the bank with money for ’em. If a fellow treats ’em right, they’ll call him by number and give him all their work. I got a box full of photos I took of these girls – some of ’em I took in their room.” Hine noted he works until 11:00 P.M.

Raymond Bykes

 

The little one in the front is Raymond Bykes, Western Union No. 23, Norfolk, Va. “Said he was 14 years old,” Hine wrote skeptically in June 1911. “Works until after 1 A.M. every night. He is precocious and not a little ‘tough.’ Has been here at this office for only three months, but he already knows the Red Light District thoroughly and goes there constantly. He told me he often sleeps down at the Bay Line boat docks all night.” Hine wrote, “Several times I saw his mother hanging around the office, but she seemed more concerned about getting his pay envelope than anything else.”

Richard Pierce

 

Richard Pierce, Messenger No. 2 from Western Union Telegraph Co in Wilmington, Delaware. “14 years of age. 9 months in service. Works from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Smokes. Visits houses of prostitution.” May, 1910.

(On a personal note, there is no way this child is 14 years old. He’s probably closer to 8 or 9.)

Frank F. Gibson

This is 14-year-old Frank Gibson, of Wilmington, Delaware in May, 1910. Western Union Telegraph Co., Messenger No. 7. He’s been a messenger for 1 year. This boy visits houses of prostitution and guides soldiers to segregated district. He smokes. Still at school and works from 8:30 P.M. to 12:30 A.M.

Marion Davis

 

Marion Davis, Messenger #21 for Bellevue Messenger Service in Houston, Texas in October 1913. He’s 14 years old. Marion told Hine, “Been messenger, off and on, for two years. Not supposed to go to the Reservation (Houston’s Red Light district) under 16 years, but I do just the same. The boss don’t care and the cops don’t stop me.”

Isaac Boyett

 

This is Isaac Boyett. Something about this little boy makes me smile and breaks my heart at the same time.

In November, 1913, Isaac told Hine: “I’m de whole show.” The 12-year-old was the proprietor, manager, and messenger of the Club Messenger Service in Waco, Texas.

“The photo shows him in the heart of the Red Light district where he was delivering messages as he does several times a day. Said he knows the houses and some of the inmates. Has been doing this for one year, working until 9:30 P.M. Saturdays. Not so late on other nights. Makes from $6 – $10 a week.”

Percy Neville

 

Percy Neville, age 11, in the heart of the Red Light district in Shreveport, Louisiana, November 1913.
“Just come out of one of the houses with message (which see in his hand),” Hine scribbled. “He said gleefully, ‘She gimme a quarter tip.'”

Emmet Brewster (left)

 

“Extremes meet,” Hine noted. “One of the youngest and one of the older messenger boys in Mobile. The small boy is Emmet Brewster, Postal messenger #3. 11 years old; been working there 7 months. Makes $10 to $15 a month. Finished the third grade in school. I saw him carrying messages late at night. Mobile, Alabama. 1914 October.”

Luther Wharton

 

Luther Wharton, drug store delivery boy, twelve years old. San Antonio, Texas. 1913 October
“Works from 4:00 P.M. to midnight in Sommers Drug Store. I saw him working at midnight. He goes to school in the daytime, then works from four to twelve. Sundays half a day. Gets $5.00 a week,” Hine wrote.

The boy confided to him: “I take medicines to the Red Light places several times a day. Yes I know some of the people there.” The photographer later reflected, “This is a pretty heavy burden, both physical and moral, to place on this adolescent boy.”

Danville, Virginia Messengers

 

“The smallest boy, Western Union No. 5, is only ten years old, and is working as extra boy in Danville, Virginia. He said he was going to be laid off as the manager told him he was too young, but an older messenger told me the reason was that the other messengers were having him put off because he cuts into their earnings. 1911 June,” Hine wrote.

Note: All photos courtesy of Library of Congress.

In May 1910, child welfare investigator Edward F. Brown carefully recorded the details he had gathered about the children selling papers on the streets of Wilmington, Delaware.

One boy, in particular, had drawn his attention: 9-year-old paper boy Donald Mallick, nicknamed Happy.

A familiar face in the town, Happy could be found out hustling at all hours of the night. Brown recorded the boy had recently been spotted in town at 11 p.m., looking for change and “working a last paper scheme”.

 

36-year-old photographer Lewis Wickes Hine was working with Investigator Brown, and took numerous photos of the children, including this one of Happy:

Library of Congress

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